Warren’s Proposal Earmarks $5B to Expand Tribal Broadband, Tribes Win Ruling Against FCC on 5G Infrastructure

Deploying high-speed Internet to rural areas is a hot campaign topic among presidential candidates. On Wednesday, Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren put forward a plan to create a federal Office of Broadband Access to manage an $85 billion grant program for cooperatives, nonprofits, Tribes and municipalities to bring high-speed internet to underserved areas. Her plan earmarks $5 billion to expand broadband access on Tribal lands.

According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in 2017, 32.1 percent of people living on Tribal lands, and 26.4 percent of people living in rural areas, did not have access to minimum speed broadband (25 Mbps/ 3 Mbps), compared to 1.7 percent in urban areas.

Warren’s universal high-speed internet access proposal calls for “publicly-owned and operated networks — and no giant [internet service providers] running away with taxpayer dollars.” 

Warren wrote on a Medium.com post: “Big broadband companies exclude entire communities — especially tribal communities and rural communities of color — from access to high-speed Internet.”

Under Warren’s proposal, the federal government would pay 90 cents on the dollar for construction under these grants. In exchange, applicants would be required to offer high-speed public broadband directly to every home in their application area.

Meanwhile, former Vice President Joe Biden last month announced his proposal to invest $20 billion in rural broadband infrastructure.

Increased attention to the need to drive economic opportunity while advancing telemedicine and education in rural and Tribal communities through high-speed Internet has come amid Tribal backlash against a March 2018 order by the FCC that was intended to expedite the national rollout of Fifth Generation or “5G” infrastructure. The FCC order exempted small-cell fixtures from certain federal reviews, inciting some local government and Tribal backlash. 5G delivers wireless internet at speeds far faster than the current standard. It also requires different technology. The plan has particularly raised concerns for Tribes looking to protect sacred sites.

Today, August 9, the D.C Circuit ruled that the FCC failed to sufficiently justify its order permitting telecom providers to deploy 5G small-cell infrastructure at Tribal heritage sites without proper Tribal consultation or completing historic preservation and environmental reviews.

A cohort of Tribes and the Natural Resources Defense Council have argued that the FCC order violates the National Environmental Policy and National Historic Preservation Acts.

5G Safety

In related 5G news, yesterday, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai circulated a new proposal to maintain the radio frequency exposure levels for 5G technology.

The FCC contends existing radio frequencies for cellular phone, cell towers, etc., already operate within safe limits, and that there’s no need to reduce radio signal strength for 5G. The mandate comes after more than six years of public input and review, spurred by rising concerns about the safety of 5G, including a potential link between cancer and cellphone radiation.

“The available scientific evidence to date does not support adverse health effects in humans due to exposures at or under the current limits,” Jeffrey Shuren, director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, wrote to the FCC. “No changes to the current standards are warranted at this time.”

Stay tuned for updates on today’s D.C Circuit ruling against the FCC order.